Mechanization Increasing in California Vineyards

By Jon Feere, October 12, 2011

After enjoying a few glasses of wine while visiting my family in Sonoma County last week, I came across an article in a local paper that supports mechanization as an alternative to mass immigration. At the end of a very interesting article about grape harvesting in the region, the journalist concludes: "As the appetite for mechanical harvesting in California continues, the end result may be even fewer seasonal workers." Put another way, as immigration law enforcement improves, the United States should expect to see increased mechanization, a reduction in illegal hiring practices, and fewer inducements for illegal immigration. Without an endless supply of cheap labor, agricultural companies will have to offer better wages and improve working conditions in order to attract a legal workforce and/or mechanize their fields. An open border immigration policy results in stagnating wages and creates no incentive for farmers to mechanize – investing in machinery upfront seems foolhardy when the federal government is giving only lip service to enforcement of immigration laws. The problem is that there is a high cost to cheap labor, and while businesses may profit off the cheap labor, the American taxpayer subsidizes this profit in the form of "free" medical care, "free" public education for the workers' children, and so on. The cheap, often illegal labor also results in sprawl, overcrowded schools, increased traffic, and strains natural resources as the population skyrockets. Mechanization avoids the negative impacts of mass immigration.

The article explains:

In Sonoma and Napa counties, the percentage of vineyards harvested by machine has been growing by 3 to 4 percent every year, said Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturist of Silverado Premium Properties. His company, which farms 3,500 acres in the two counties, harvests about 45 percent of its crop with machines.

"The trend towards mechanization has been a long-standing trend that continues to grow really over the last 10 years," Opatz said. "Will the labor shortfall push the line more vertical? Of course it will."

Meanwhile, grape growers are saying there's a shortage of seasonal workers available to help with the harvest this year, a trend caused in part by the faltering U.S. economy and tighter restrictions on the border with Mexico.

"As that labor pool becomes more and more difficult to tap into for agriculture, or any work...I see more and more mechanization of our industry as time goes on," said Don Wallace, president of Dry Creek Vineyard outside Healdsburg.

The Australian wine industry has long had a smaller labor pool than it needed during harvest, and as a result, mechanical harvesting is far more common there, Wallace said.

Obviously, the Australian wine industry exists without mass illegal immigration from Mexico. The notion that U.S. wineries will let their prized grapes "rot on the vine" if the United States begins seriously enforcing immigration laws – a refrain favored by open-border advocates – is just silly. With increased enforcement will come increased mechanization, and these farmers are proving that to be true. In fact, the article explains that mechanization can also be profitable for wine growers:

For cost efficiency, the numbers are on the side of mechanization. Opatz calculated that it costs about $300 per ton to hand-pick a 5 ton chardonnay crop, when considering the costs of payroll, workers' compensation and social security. Picking the same amount mechanically costs about $150 per ton, even taking into account the cost of the machinery, which can run around $400,000 for a top-quality machine.

Walsh Vineyards Management has been machine harvesting for a decade, and recently invested in more machine harvesters made by Pellenc because the quality of the finished product improved significantly, said Towle Merritt, viticulturist with the Napa company.

"In a situation like this, where we're facing a pretty significant weather event in the middle of next week...you can harvest more grapes in a shorter period of time," Merritt said. "Sometimes harvesting them at the right time is more important than harvesting them by hand.". . .

"The machines that are used these days are so incredibly gentle it's amazing. They don't break or macerate the berries," said Ondine Chattan, director of winemaking at Geyser Peak Winery.

Mechanization rather than mass immigration is the way of the future. Farmers would be wise to invest in the future.